Hewitt: Why I’m running the virtual Boston Marathon, and finishing what I started

It was May 11, nearly two months after the Boston Marathon was postponed to September, when I restarted my new four-month training plan for a race that would be unlike any other in the event’s incredible history. The next day, a special thing happened.

I set out for what I expected to be an ordinary six-mile run, heading down Commonwealth Ave. and looping around the Charles River and back. But as I was finishing up, waiting to cross the street at Packard’s Corner in Allston, an old man approached me and pointed at my shirt, which was the shirt I got from running the Hyannis Half Marathon in February. I turned off the music in my headphones as he began talking to me.

Social distancing had become the norm by then, so we made sure to stay far apart as we conversed with our masks on. The man, whose name is Neal, wanted to know if I ran marathons. That led to talking about how I was training for Boston this year.

Neal, originally from Wisconsin, told me how he was supposed to have family come out for the marathon — which was then scheduled for Sept. 14, which is also his birthday. He seemed really excited.

Neal and I ended up standing at that corner for at least 30 minutes — the hell with the rest of my run — and he was a pleasure to talk to, even if he was doing most of the talking. The conversation eventually turned to the 2013 Marathon bombings. He asked me if I was there — I wasn’t, I was still in college — but I pointed to the white MR8 hat I was wearing and told him I was running for the Martin Richard Foundation, in memory of the 8-year-old boy from Dorchester who died in the bombings. His eyes lit up. Neal had once lived in Dorchester’s Ashmont neighborhood, and he knew Martin’s priest. What were the chances?

Neal was in Boston the day of the bombings and went down to the finish line afterward to help. It was this day, he said, that he believed he went from someone from Wisconsin who lived in Boston to becoming a proud Bostonian. He referenced David Ortiz’s famous “this is our f***ing city” line and how proud that made him to live here.

Our conversation ended and I got ready to cross the street to finish my run, but Neal walked back to me. He took out his wallet and very kindly handed me a $10 bill for a donation to the foundation toward my marathon fundraising efforts. We talked some more, he wished me well on the marathon and that he hoped to see me out there on Sept. 14, and we went our separate ways.


That chance meeting with Neal was one of the random things to happen to me on a run. During an unusual, uncertain and scary time in our world, it provided some hope and a much-needed pick-me-up. It was also a reminder of why I run for Martin, and a foundation built on peace, kindness and making our community a better place.

On Sunday, after a nearly 10-month, exhausting and emotional journey, I’ll finally run the Boston Marathon — my second one — but of course, not the way I envisioned it. Two weeks after meeting Neal, the marathon was turned into a “virtual race,” meaning I wouldn’t be running the iconic route from Hopkinton to Boston, being cheered on by thousands of spectators before taking in that famous Boylston Street moment to the finish line, one of truly the most special experiences of my life when I first did it in 2018.

That was a hard reality to accept. To be honest, when the marathon was first announced as “virtual,” my emotions overcame me. I swore it off and told some of my closest friends I wouldn’t do it. It wasn’t the “real thing,” or what I felt I deserved.

But then I remembered the promise I had made to an incredible foundation and a special little boy that I first ran for and became an important part of my life in 2018. When MR8 announced last September that 2020 would be its final year in the Boston Marathon, I knew I had to do it. I was accepted for a spot on their legacy team and there’s no way I could go back on it. This was bigger than myself.

So, I went on with my training, and remembering my purpose to help me push through long runs in the brutal summer heat. In early July, our team received an email from the Richard family. It reminded us that this foundation was created because life was not fair in 2013. They told us that when they remember Martin and the values he stood for, they know he would have embraced and accepted the virtual race for what it stood for — an effort to keep our city and community safe, among other things — and all that it could be. We shouldn’t be fretting on what it isn’t.

Though 2020 has been difficult in so many ways, it’s taught me some valuable lessons about kindness, appreciating what you have and continuing to push forward and making the most of every situation in the face of adversity and trying circumstances, everything MR8 embodies.

This race embodies that, too. Throughout this journey, I’ve kept coming back to a message delivered by President Barack Obama in 2013, when he came to Boston days after the marathon bombings to speak at a memorial service for the victims. The circumstances are different, but I think the message of resilience, perseverance and not letting anyone or anything stop us still rings true.

“That’s what you’ve taught us, Boston,” Obama said. “That’s what you’ve reminded us — to push on. To persevere. To not grow weary. To not get faint. Even when it hurts. Even when our heart aches. We summon the strength that maybe we didn’t even know we had, and we carry on. We finish the race. We finish the race.”

That’s what I’ll do on Sunday, more than 1,000 miles of training later, with the support of my friends — Kasey, Jamie, Patty, Erin, Brian and Meghan — and our supporters, and fueled by the memory of Martin to help push through the hard miles to 26.2, we will finish what we started.

And maybe, I’ll even see Neal.

To support Steve’s run, go to https://charity.gofundme.com/o/en/campaign/mr8bos20/stevehewitt

More: Hewitt: Why I’m running the virtual Boston Marathon, and finishing what I started